courtesy of Pamela Cantelon

Baseball beyond borders

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Sometimes sport is more than just a game. Each year in August, the Little League World Series draws 11 and 12 year olds from all over the world to Williamsport, Pennsylvania to compete in an internationally televised baseball championship. Last year's Team Canada was from Langley, British Columbia and was scheduled to face the winner of the African/European region in their first game of the tournament. Each year, this regional representative has been Russian, Dutch, Middle Eastern or European -- rarely does a central or southern African country compete. However, in 2011 -- for the first time in the tournament's history -- an African team earned the right to represent their region in the llws.

Outside of having to win the conference, the Ugandan team was faced with many logistical problems -- one could conclude that producing a competent baseball team of any age would be impossible. The coordinator of Ugandan Little League Richard Stanley explained that nearly all fields in Uganda are without backstops or fences.

"First of all, there are no fields," he said. "At best you play on a rocky football field. Second of all, there is no equipment. You can't buy a baseball glove or a bat in all of Uganda or all of East Africa as far as I am aware."

This reality made Team Uganda's win in the regional tournament held in Poland even more impressive.

"An African team has to travel to play a regional tournament in Europe and to do that they have to fly. The cost to fly from Africa to Europe for a team is $35,000 roughly," said Stanley.

However, two weeks before the Ugandan team was supposed to play in Williamsport, their request for visas was denied by the American State Department -- a decision that left many confused and disappointed. The reasons for the denial of the visa application reflect an equally important side of the deficiencies in the Ugandan little league program -- legalistic and instructive. Problems with adequate documentation plagued the 2011 Ugandan team, as several of the required citizenship papers were not up to American standards. Exacerbating the legal problems with Ugandan documentation is that their grouping in the European region means trips to European embassies are needed in order to gain travel visas just to qualify for the llws. The regional home for the European, Middle Eastern and African region is in Poland.

"In order to get to Poland, you have to get to the Polish embassy," said Stanley. "There's no Polish embassy in Uganda -- the closest one is in Kenya. So these are the bureaucratic problems you encounter."

Team Canada encountered slightly different challenges en route to their berth in the llws. Qualifying for the tournament by defeating their provincial rivals from White Rock, B.C. and Quebec in the Canadian finals, looked set to continue the tradition of Langley teams at the llws. In 1998, a team from Langley reached the llws finals, the best-ever finish for a Canadian team in the tournament.

Once at the llws, the Canadian team learned Uganda would not be their opponent and faced off against their replacement, Saudi Arabia, defeating them 6-5. They defeated the Chinese Taipei in their next game of the tournament. Ultimately, the Canadians would be ousted by the Japanese in the third round of the tournament, but the two victories were a large step for Canadian Little League.

Team Canada coach Dean Cantelon recalled the hard work required to reach the tournament: "When we won nationals, it was a long journey and it wasn't just starting from our districts, provincials or nationals, but we went back two or three years and we had a dream . . . and when it finally came true we really felt good about it."

Present in the minds of some watching the proceedings in Williamsport was the plight of the Ugandan team whose opportunity to play was abruptly denied. Vancouver philanthropist Ruth Hoffman followed the events that transpired and endeavoured to bring the game to Uganda instead. A plan was hatched to send the Canadian team to Uganda to play the game that was originally scheduled to be game one in Williamsport. Cantelon and his players were empathetic to the struggles and the heartbreak of the Ugandan team.

"We had our meeting in September when the proposal was brought to our attention," explained Cantelon. "The story of winning your regional tournament and then not being able to go to the llws, we just couldn't imagine being in that situation. The parents, the coaches and the players were all on board and we wanted to do whatever it took to make this happen."

The proposal garnered support from the non-profit group Right to Play and American documentary maker Jay Shapiro, who was shooting a piece about the Ugandan team's journey to the llws. Fundraising for the trip to Uganda was a smashing success with donations exceeding Hoffman's goals, totalling over $115,000 and allowing the trip to take place this January. Joining the Langley team were noted baseball celebrities Greg Zaun, Jimmy Rollins and Derrek Lee, who all took part in clinics for aspiring Ugandan ball players of all ages.

"They're just like any other boys you would meet here in Canada," Cantelon said of the Ugandan players. "We have a common goal -- we play baseball and love the game of baseball. So that was an icebreaker."

The game that was organized in Uganda was played on a field located about an hour outside Uganda's capital city of Kampala and had some unique eccentricities.

"The field we played on did not have a backstop," said Cantelon. "The Ugandan parents and public would just sit right back there and watch the game and not even flinch if a fly ball came past them at 70 miles per hour. That was an eye opener for us."

The game itself ended as if scripted by Disney, with Uganda winning 2-1 in the last inning. As Stanley points out, the trip by Team Canada will go a long way towards correcting prejudices about travel to the region.

"The number-one concern of any team wanting to travel to Uganda was safety," said Stanley. "Saudi Arabia refused to go entirely because of Uganda's image. Team Canada tore that down."

Stanley, a part owner of a baseball affiliate to the New York Yankees, acknowledges the potential of the Ugandan players: "There is tremendous talent, physical talent, athletic talent in that country. The only problem is getting the opportunity for that talent to develop. That means giving them the opportunity to play."

For a country that is in desperate need of some good press, the game -- and the accompanying documentary Fair Ball that aired on April 1 -- is a welcome breath of fresh air.

Fundamentally, this is the story of a group of boys playing a game they all love, though separated by oceans.

Through the continuing efforts of organizers like Richard Stanley, Ugandan baseball continues to grow with the intention of giving Ugandan children the opportunity and possibility of using their raw talent to forge a brighter future. Like a number of problems surrounding many African nations, there is no quick fix, no silver bullet that will rectify the legal and social problems contributing to Uganda's substandard baseball structure. It will take more than a few new backstops for Ugandan ball players to feel safe at home.